Six steps for establishing a listening climate

About the author

Kevin is the other half of the husband and wife team behind PR Academy. Along with Ann Pilkington, he set up the business in 2007. After a career in BT that spanned customer service, community engagement and internal communication, he developed his special interest in internal comms and employee engagement. He saw the need for a qualification in this topic and initiated and developed both the internal comms certificate and diploma courses for the CIPR. He also leads our CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course.

In our new book, ‘Leading the Listening Organisation’, colleagues Mike Pounsford, Howard Krais and I highlight the benefits of developing a healthy listening climate. This is dependent not only on senior leaders having strong personal listening capabilities, but also taking responsibility for developing the use of multiple methods in a systemic approach to listening, and responding, to what employees say.

In our research, we found that many organisations are over-reliant on a single annual employee engagement survey as their main method for listening. We call this a ‘passive’ approach. Adopting a wider range of methods such as regular pulse surveys, focus groups, and digital listening is associated with many beneficial outcomes including greater innovation, better responsiveness to change, and higher levels of trust and engagement. This is what we describe as an ‘active’ listening approach.

The starting point for establishing an effective listening climate is to do a stock take of the current situation. This then sets the stage for five further steps, as set out below.

Step 1: Conduct a listening audit

The first step in the process is to assess senior leader perspectives on the value of listening and employee satisfaction with listening (and how far what they say is treated seriously). Additionally, it is useful to review the methods currently used, the extent that listening is embedded into internal communication plans, and the way that the organisation responds to what employees say. A more detailed review includes a survey of a representative group of employees to gauge their general satisfaction with the way that the organisation listens to them.

Step 2: Analyse the results from the listening audit

The listening climate audit generates quantitative and qualitative data for analysis. The survey results provide a general picture of the situation and provide the basis for setting measurable listening objectives.

For example, employees could be asked to score the following question: ‘Senior leaders are open to hearing what employees have to say’ on a scale of 1-5 where 5 is ‘strongly agree’. Let’s say that the results for this question were 53 percent of employees scoring it 4 or 5. This enables an objective to be set to improve this.

The book includes suggested questions for a listening audit survey, an interview guide for senior leaders and a focus group guide for employees.

Step 3: Set measurable listening objectives

The results and analysis of the listening audit data provide the basis for working with the leadership team to set measurable listening objectives.

For example, an objective could be set to improve a 53 percent result for ‘Senior leaders are open to hearing what employees have to say’ to 65 percent within 12 months.

Step 4: Develop a listening plan with monthly reporting and feedback processes

A listening plan is a way of cementing the listening audit and listening objectives into an approach that is transferred in day-to-day internal communication. This plan should be incorporated into broader internal communication and employee engagement or experience plans, rather than be considered as a stand-alone initiative. It does not have to be a comprehensive document or spreadsheet. It is simply a statement comprising a situation analysis (using the data from the listening audit), listening objectives, monthly listening activities (using a wide range of methods), a process for analysing what employees are saying and reporting this to a senior manager team, and a process for reporting back to employees with responses and actions.

Step 5: Review the plan on a quarterly basis and check progress against objectives

The benefit of conducting a listening audit that informs listening objectives is that it makes the measurement of the plan more straightforward. Further pulse surveys with sample groups of employees enables progress against objectives to be checked.

A wider review of how the plan is going can also be conducted on a quarterly basis. Questions to ask include:

  • What general themes are emerging in the monthly senior manager reports?
  • How far are all listening sources and data being integrated into the process?
  • What further support do we need to ensure that all listening data is being captured?
  • How well are senior managers responding to points raised in monthly reports?
  • Are there specific themes that senior managers are finding it difficult to respond to? If so, how can this be explained to employees?
  • What else could be added to listening activities that would improve the process?

Step 6: Evaluate the plan on an annual basis

The listening plan should be evaluated on an annual basis. This review includes a full assessment of progress against objectives set for the year. It also considers what has generally worked well and what could be improved in the future. Depending on the starting point for the listening climate, it is at this point that tackling tougher listening challenges should be considered.

‘Leading the Listening Organisation: Creating Organisations that Flourish’ is published by Routledge.

Buy the book

For those studying with us at PR Academy the book is now available on the Study Hub online library.

Key models and principles from the book form part of the CIPR internal communication qualifications delivered by PR Academy.